Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

This is the fourth instalment in Robert Galbraith’s (aka J.K. Rowling) detective series based on former war veteran and now PI, the fabulously named, Cormoran Strike. This book, Lethal White, picks up from the moment the last one ended – at Robin’s imminent wedding and will she/won’t she. From there, the novel then jumps to a year later, and a rather strained relationship between Strike and Robin has developed.

Before we can plume the depths of this, a new case presents itself, a new case that involves the blackmail of a current minister – the one responsible for the London Olympics as it happens. Seemingly unrelated to this is the strange tale of a young man who seeks Strike’s services to uncover the mystery of a murder he saw years earlier. Intrigued and concerned, Strike cannot let this young man’s request go, even if the story appears to be the product of a disordered mind.

As the case around the minister throws more leads that become increasingly complex and appear to be misdirections rather than aiding a resolution, it’s not until a murder occurs that Strike and Robin understand they’re dealing with desperate and dangerous people. So dangerous that, the closer they get to solving this tangled web others have weaved, the more other lives, including their own, are put in danger.

Once more, this is a slow-burn, gum-shoe detective story that relies heavily on old-fashioned plodding police and brain work rather than technological devices and DNA to be solved. Galbraith takes the reader into London, Westminster and the heart of dysfunctional families and relationships, including Strike’s and Robin’s in order to bring sense to this series of senseless crimes. Not only does London become as much a character as do the various homes and offices to which we’re privy, but class plays a big role as well. The way Galbraith captures the smells and sounds of the city or class differences and prejudices with just a word or brief description is magical.

Longer than the other Strike novels. I absolutely loved losing myself in Robin and Strike’s world and the differing viewpoints. Understanding how Robin and Strike regard each other, how they attribute certain motivation and even actions, is really well done. So too is seeing how they operate successfully and unsuccessfully in their relationships with others. Causing pain or having it inflicted upon them seems to be par for the course for these integrity-rich pair. You’ll find yourself bleeding for them as what’s apparent quickly to the reader takes longer to become clear to the one in the thick of it. Nevertheless, you champion their decisions and actions – even wrong ones – because you know they come from either a good place or they’re the right ones for them at that time. This is what Galbraith has given the reader – characters that live and breathe on the page and thus ring emotionally true. We care deeply.

Equal parts frustrating and rewarding, the further we get into the main tale, the more complicated and twisty it becomes, but never does Galbraith lose the plot. She also manages to expose the vulnerabilities and fears of her main characters without weakening them – on the contrary, their foibles give them additional strengths and make them so very human.

I was so disappointed when I finished this book. Not so much because the plot was amazing (which it was), but because it’s so very easy to care for Strike and Robin and want to be a part of their world. I guess even for a short time is better than none.

But now I have to wait so long for the next book… again, waiting is better than having nothing to wait for. Another fabulous read.

 

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The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Having loved Minette Walters other books, I was so looking forward to reading The Last Hours, her first foray into historical fiction. Set in England in 1348, it tells the story of how one resilient and clever community, Develish in Dorseteshire, survived during the deadly outbreak of the Black Plague, a plague that wiped out nearly half the population.

Centred around two primary characters, Lady Anne Develish and a serf whom she has nurtured over many years, the maligned bastard, Thaddeus Thurkell, it also explores the complex network of familial and other relationships that make up the immediate village and manor house – from the simply villainous and narcissistic Lord of the manor, Sir Richard to his equally vile daughter, Eleanor, to the various bondmen and their families as well as the alcoholic priest. How they all respond to not only news of the spread of plague, but the various threats that are set to unravel the lives they’ve built, makes compelling reading.

The novel starts slowly, introducing the reader to these various players in what’s about to become a fight for survival against overwhelming odds – and not just the sickness kind. As the plague takes its toll and the folk of Develish retreat behind the walls and moat, it swiftly becomes clear that healthy humans, and those forced into close confinement can often pose a much greater hazard than a ravaging illness.

When a murder happens among the cloistered community, only quick and drastic action prevents a greater travesty occurring.

Left with no choice but to seek both news and vitals beyond Develish’s boundaries, and led by Thaddeus, an exiled group join the brutal, devastated wider world that’s been ravaged by the plague. In the meantime, those they’ve left behind who look to Lady Anne for leadership and so much more, are forced to deal with not only their own doubts and fears, but the murderous intentions of other survivors who see the plague as an opportunity for exploitation.

The premise of this story reminded me very much of Geraldine Brooks’ magnificent Year of Wonders (still one of my all-time favourite books), a tale based on the true story of the brave souls who voluntarily quarantined themselves in order to prevent the spread of plague in 1665. But there the comparison ends. The people of Develish don’t quarantine themselves for the sake of others, but to save their own skin – not that there is anything wrong with that.

Establishing the personalities, weaknesses and strengths of the various players early, I found myself mostly investing in them. Where I struggled was in the glaring anachronisms around Lady Anne’s approach to not only health and hygiene but religion and class structures. I’ve not doubt there were exceptions to the strict rules and governance of the day, only Lady Anne seemed to buck, resist and rise above every accepted religious, social and hygiene standard set by the culture and period. This meant that most of her approaches to people and household habits smacked of 21st Century mores and notions. Part of me quite enjoyed the justification for some of her “modern” motivations and rules, that made Develish such an exceptional place, but when set against the misogynistic attitudes of first her husband and, later, what would have been ingrained in so many people – men and women – she became a medieval superhero and the tolerance and understanding extended to her by those who looked to her for leadership, more than remarkable for the time. Again, it’s always beautifully rationalised, I just didn’t always swallow it, as much as I wanted to. Lady Anne was so good, and right and smart and bold, yet also marvellously strategic, she almost (almost) became two-dimensional – and it’s testimony to Walter’s writing that she didn’t.

Where this didn’t work quite so well was in the portrayal of Lady Anne’s husband, Sir Richard. Frankly, what an utter arse without any redeeming qualities whatsoever and who just becomes worse and worse as the novel progresses and his behaviours are uncovered. How anyone, even a Norman steward can show loyalty to such a buffoon when other options are available and commons sense dictates otherwise, is a stretch.

Likewise, the daughter, Eleanor. Once more, Walters is at pains to explain and justify her putrid behaviour. Problem is, she was so damn selfish and awful, she was more a caricature and device for showing other characters’ goodness and faults than a real person.

Still, I enjoyed many of the scenes with both these characters and learning how their utterly selfish motivations and unreasonable demands were subtly overturned.

My main beef with the book was how it ended. I wished I’d known this wasn’t a complete book in itself. No. It is part of a series. I found it fairly confusing towards the final pages, particularly those inserted to give you a taste of what’s to follow. I found they made little sense and made me cross rather than longing to learn more!

Overall, the period and the English countryside and rules and regulations governing English manors and lands and how fiefdoms were controlled is well-established and fascinating, as is the ghastly way in which the plague affected people and how its spread was managed. Religion is not treated kindly and nor are the upper classes who don’t seem to have one redeemable character among them – I struggled a bit with both of these depictions, particularly as religion was the world-view then and to dissent or hold alternate (and very contemporary views) was to be a heretic and risk the salvation of the soul. Atheism might have been around, as was alternate ways of thinking about God, but again, putting all these views and arguments in the mouth and mind of mainly one character – and one who grew up in a nunnery – was sometimes difficult to go along with.

The story, once it really starts, is suspenseful and there are times I was flipping pages to find out what was happening. It’s some of the main and subsidiary characters that caused me problems in terms of completely suspending my disbelief (which I am very happy to do). They appeared to have been invented in our century and sent back in time to educate, elucidate and rescue those deemed worthy or smart enough to understand redemption comes in other forms.

The writing is, at all times, lovely and compelling and I will keep an eye out for the next instalment in this series – presumably, the hours after these last ones!

 

 

 

 

 

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Restoration London: Everyday Life in the 1660s by Liza Picard

565274Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Liza Picard’s Elizabethan London, I knew I was in for a real treat when I discovered her book, Restoration London: Everyday Life in the 1660s. I wasn’t disappointed. Using sources from the era (in particular, extracts from Samuel Pepys diary) as well as almanacs, government papers, letters, tourists of the times’ impressions, Picard paints a wonderful picture of one of the most eminent cities in the world from 1660-1670, London.

Emerging out of the chaos of the last decade and a half, which saw one king (Charles I) beheaded and an Interregnum government headed by The Protector, Oliver Cromwell established, before the heir to the throne, the apparently, pleasure-loving but also diplomatic and lusty Charles II was restored, Picard immerses the reader in life during this last stage – a stage that involved the casting off of parliamentary rule and Puritan shackles and return to monarchy and all that entailed.

We enter stately homes, shops, ships as well as wander the streets and learn everything from what the rich, “middling” and poor ate (or didn’t), their superstitions, sexual habits, toileting, washing, and even how they cleaned their teeth. We discover the sicknesses they succumbed to (not forgetting the Plague that struck in 1665), the dreadful remedies offered; what they bought, wore, how they addressed each other and even their secret desires. Religion played a huge role in this period of conflict and xenophobia, and Picard doesn’t hold back on addressing this either and how and where people prayed and the kinds of communities they established.

The insights she gives are so beautifully written and, at times, imagined, and she has this wonderful quirky way of sometimes commenting on habits and idiosyncrasies of individuals or, indeed, the general populace, that had me bursting out laughing.

I will read this again in hardback (when the copy I ordered arrives) as I read this on Kindle and marked up so many passages, I need to be able to enjoy them again, but this time in print where I can access her extensive footnotes as well.

Highly recommended for lovers of history or even those who enjoy entertaining and really informative reads that keep an eye on the reader and the time they are writing from as well.

Can’t wait to read more by this wonderful lawyer-cum-historian.

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